Pictures That Speak for the Wilderness

Freeman Patterson has assembled a stunning volume of nature photographs to convey a global message about his native Canada
June 16, 1991

At first glance, "the last wilderness: Images of the Canadian Wild" (Rizzoli, $50) seems to be a simple book. The design, with no more than one wilderness photo per page, is like the Canadian Arctic itself: lots of white space surrounding scenes of wild splendor. There are no clever graphics in the opening pages to lure you into buying a square foot of book that then drops off into repetitive and less interesting material. The visual message is remarkably consistent. Before you know it, no matter where you open the book, an internal quality grabs your soul.

It's there, in a turquoise wave frozen into an exquisite sculpture that the eye could never behold in real life (plate 75). An icy marsh filled with migrating geese seems to thaw as you contemplate it through the warm tones of a misty Manitoba sunset (plate 119). Image after image leads you to see the natural world more powerfully through the language of film than if you had seen the same scenes with your own eyes. This rare consistency gives the work of nearly 50 photographers, most of them Canadian, such a distinctive message and style that the book appears to have come from the hand and eye of a single supertalent. And, in a way, it has.

The Last Wilderness is not just another picture book with photos selected by committee, although the book's royalties will go to the Canadian Nature Federation. The 139 elegantly presented images were culled from more than 9,000 of the photographers' favorites by a highly autocratic, but not at all arbitrary, selection process. One man simply chose the images that spoke to him. Freeman Patterson, 54, is a renowned Canadian wilderness photographer who for decades has used his work to show unique aspects of the earth's wild places. He studiously avoids the predictable postcard views you would see if you turned off the Trans-Canada Highway at the scenic-vista signs. He also avoids embellishing nature with phony filtered colors, which can be as destructive to a photograph's credibility as the use of overblown adjectives is in speaking or writing.

As Patterson explains in an essay at the end of The Last Wilderness, the images he ultimately chose for the book were selected to help Canada because "we believe they express a profound caring for our global treasure, Canada's last wilderness areas." He makes the photographs speak for themselves, with only a brief note for each image. As a result, The Last Wilderness, which is literally about Canada, also conveys a more global sense of place in which, as Patterson writes, "life's processes can regenerate and restore the health of our planet."

He clearly understands how photographs can capture events that are at once both wholly credible and apparently incredible. In his choice of landscapes, natural objects and light form unrepeatable images. Through the camera, wild creatures take on added dimensions—as obvious as the sharp figure of a duck walking on water, where our eyes would have caught only a flutter of wings (plate 84), or as subtle as a polar bear about to eat a walrus pup in what the camera freezes into an endless moment of foreboding (plate 115). In the medium of film, a blue jay turns crimson and black as the sun's first rays filter through its feathers (plate 22).

One of Patterson's own images turns a rippling forest reflection into an abstract pastel palette. Another photographer uses the northern lights to paint the sky with broad brushstrokes of red and green in a time exposure of what one's eyes would record as dancing and shimmering lights (plate 87). The synergy of these photographs, which have a greater meaning together than apart, is the intended goal of every coffee-table book, yet few achieve this remarkable level of integration. It harks back to the early coffee-table books of nature photography, the Sierra Club exhibit series of the 1960s, which were produced to create an awareness of beautiful places in the U.S. that were in need of protection. Canada in the '90s is not unlike the pre-'60s U.S.: lots of wild places, but not much governmental protection. Less than 3% of the land in Canada is set aside for parks or is otherwise protected.

The Sierra Club used its elegant books about specific wild areas as weapons in the war to preserve these places. The sad reality of this wonderful Canadian throwback to the early days when big nature books were a rare species is that the book may go almost unnoticed now. That would be a shame, because the message that The Last Wilderness conveys about the threats to this precious landscape shouldn't go unheeded.

PHOTOPETER VAN RHIJNUnrepeatable images: A rock in a river looks almost surreal.

Photographer Galen Rowell's most recent book is "Mountain Light," published in 1989.

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